A Soldier’s Story

October 01, 1998 2 min read

The outpouring of support for ailing Seattle schools superintendent John Stanford drew national attention this summer, with a number of Hollywood filmmakers expressing interest in his story.

Stanford, 59, was diagnosed with leukemia in April and has since been undergoing treatment. The people of Seattle have rallied behind the popular superintendent, and contributions have poured in to a foundation he established to buy books for schools.

The interest from filmmakers followed stories in USA Today and on network news programs. “They see his story as being a Lean on Me and Stand and Deliver-type film but with a bigger scale and almost with more drama,” says district spokesman Trevor Neilson. Both movies center on the real-life stories of tough-minded educators.

A tireless, charismatic cheerleader for the public schools, Stanford became Seattle’s first black superintendent in June 1995 and one the few noneducators to lead a big-city school system. The former U.S. Army major general left a higher-paying job as the manager of Fulton County, Georgia, to take the Seattle post. Although his tenure has not always gone smoothly, Stanford has been hailed as an inspiring leader who has buoyed both hopes and test scores in the three years since he took the job.

Perhaps the biggest measure of his popularity was a $500,000 bonus offered him last winter by anonymous Seattle-area donors who wanted him to stay on the job through June 2002. His current contract expires in 2000. In rejecting the offer, Stanford challenged the donors to spend the money on school programs instead.

Neilson says the 47,000-student district has been deluged with get-well wishes. Stanford has requested that, instead of flowers, people send money for the book fund he set up, and more than 2,000 individuals have done so. The initial $500,000 goal was met in August.

A heavily attended back-to-school rally early last month sent a similar message of concern and thanks. In a surprise move, Stanford left the hospital to address the crowd in person. “This rally is about a world-class, student-focused system,” he announced.

In August, Stanford underwent a stem-cell transplant after two rounds of chemotherapy failed to arrest his leukemia. Early signs from the transplant have been encouraging, Neilson says. Still, doctors have given the superintendent about a one-in-five chance of surviving the treatment and living for five years cancer-free.

-Bess Keller